Salsipuedes: Challenges for Ecotourism in Mexico’s Baja California

In the construction of a framework for forging a socially acceptable and politically viable style
of growth that respects natural resources and guarantees their rational use and their preservation for
future generations, innumerable forces converge. Sometimes these forces are at odds with each other.
They come from the federal, state, and municipal governments, from national and foreign investors, from
academia, and from civil society organizations.

In this context, the Baja California peninsula is a true laboratory providing multiple examples
of the mosaic of challenges and the richness of the cutting edge proposals to resolve them. In the central
part of this exceptional region, the Reserva de la Biosfera del Vizcaíno (Rebivi) constitutes
a true microcosm, unique in the world, like other areas in the Mar de Cortés region of which it
forms part.

But what to do with a territory like this, that broadly speaking presents varied obstacles to the
promotion of "development"? Its topographical characteristics are wilderness-like, it is very
far from the continental mass and from the urban centers of Baja California Sur, that themselves are
small, which makes the introduction of public services like drinking water, electricity, roads, and sewer
systems difficult; political organization is null and social organization revolves around ejidos (rural
collective farming communities) and cooperatives, complex figures and generators of distrust toward private
investment or public support. And this is, paradoxically, part of its richness.

The San Ignacio Mission, intact since the arrival of the Spanish, waits to be explored. Photo: Miguel Ángel Torres.

In the Reserve, one can enjoy, among many other attractions, the countryside, and get to know deserts
with great vegetative and animal diversity, fantastic age-old rock painting, oases that are a relief
to the eye of the visitor, opportunities to view the ancestral journey of the grey whale—that reproduces
and conceives only in these lagoons—migratory birds that find refuge here, and Jesuit missions, almost
intact, that served to colonize the local ethnicities on the arrival of the Spanish.

SIERRA DE SANTA MARTHA, BCS—Driving at a speed of between 30 and 35 kilometers an hour, on a dirt
road, some rural people stop their vehicle in front of a group of 10 unknown people. It’s getting dark,
but no one is afraid, contrary to what one might think. The passengers are looking at six tourists and
four campesinos. A tire on their car, a sedan that couldn’t stand the weight of the passengers
and the pockmarked road, has punctured. Its license plates are from Mexico City, more than a thousand
kilometers away.

La Sierra de Santa Martha: In the Rebivi all types of ancient art can be observed. Photo: Miguel Ángel Torres.

Supportively, the peasants help the visitors to fix the flat tire. They part as great friends, as
if they had had a long time to get to know each other—but it is a chance meeting. The travelers ask for
help reaching the highway, at a distance of some 50 kilometers. A few hours before, their loud laughter
had been heard as they came down from the a local rock art site—giant human and animal figures whose
images have been seen all around the world and whose origin goes back 4,500 years.

Here, the Santa Martha mountain range shares with the neighboring San Francisco range the prestige
of being among the top five rock painting sites in the world, which has earned them a place in the list
of World Heritage Sites.

This is part of the El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, located in the northern area of Baja California
Sur state, one of the most geographically wild parts of Mexico.

The El Vizcaino reserve was decreed a protected natural area and Biosphere Reserve on Nov. 30,
1988. It is located in the municipality of Mulegé, in the North of Baja California Sur state.
45,985 people live in this municipality, of which 39,000 live in the Reserve—85% of the population of
the municipality and 9.2% of that of the state. It is considered that in the Reserve, similarly to in
the Mulegé municipality, the population rate has remained almost completely stagnant since the
late 90s, with just 0.04% growth, which contrasts with the state’s 12.8% growth rate. The density of
the population in the Reserve is calculated as slightly less than one inhabitant per square kilometer
(0.7 inhabitants/, making it one of the least dense in Mexico. The following table illustrates
the distribution of population in the Reserve by community and by gender.

Population by community and by gender in the Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve





La Bocana




Bahía Tortugas




Bahía Asunción




Santa Rosalía




Guerrero Negro




Punta Abreojos




San Ignacio




Ejido Benito Juárez




Colonia Laguneros




La Joya




Fco. J. Mújica




G. Díaz Ordaz




El Vizcaíno




Emiliano Zapata No. 1




The Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve is the biggest in the country, with 2,546,790 hectares. It
makes up 77% of the surface of the Mulegé municipality and 34.6% of the state’s territory. The
largest part of the surface of the Reserve is common land (ejidos, 86%), followed in importance by mining
properties (9.7%). It has a buffer zone (86%) and the remaining 14% is referred to as the "nucleus." The
total nucleus zone is made up of 16 nuclear areas that cover part of the Vizcaíno desert, the
northern region of the Ojo de Liebre Lagoon, shoreline sections of the Guerrero Negro Lagoon, the islands
of the Ojo de Liebre Lagoon, the rest of the islands within the reserve, and the area of the mountain
range Tinajas de Murillo. The reserve has an offshore strip of five kilometers within territorial waters
for the purpose of including the migratory route of the gray whale, islands, and fishing resources. Within
this offshore strip there are 16 islands, of which the biggest and most important are located on the
Pacific slope. The Rebivi includes the following types of ecosystems: marine and coastal, desert, fresh
water, agricultural (both modern and traditional), and others (mining and orchards).

The Local Residents of the Santa Martha Range: Guides into a Magical Land

Don José, our 67 year-old guide, is very attentive to the visitors and knowledgeable about the region. Photo: Helene Michoux.

To get to the Santa Martha Sanctuary, you need to pass through San Ignacio, about 600 kilometers from
La Paz, the state capital. At the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH, National
Institute for Anthropology and History) you should buy a ticket, 30 pesos ($US3) per person, and another
small fee for permission to take pictures and video. Once you’ve paid the fees, the ticketperson will
contact the Santa Martha base camp by radio to request a guide and establish a meeting time.

What time do you plan to leave? In what vehicle? These are the first questions to be able to estimate
the time you will arrive. Then you will learn the name of your guide, and everything will be recorded
in the record book, to control the number of visitors and the distribution of work among the locals.
This is essential because it turns out that our guide, for example, lives an hour away from the meeting
point for tourists. "Where do you live, Don Jose?" He replies, gesturing toward the mountains, "Up
there, an hour and a half walk."

The guides—11 in all—that take turns guiding the tourists, charge 180 pesos, perhaps the only income
they receive in several weeks. When asked, Don Jose reveals he lives in the countryside, and grows certain
plants seasonally, since there is no water in the desert. He grows tomatoes, chiles, corn, and beans.
He hopes that 2006 will be a better year than the last because it hardly rained at all.

Our guide is 67 years old, and never ever loses sight of the visitors; when one stops to rest from
the intense hike, he takes time to whistle a ranchera tune or tell us about the mountain goats, about
today’s sunset, to learn where his clients are from, and comment on the medicinal properties of the local
plants, or about the paintings. He is quite at home.

On the way to the paintings Don José tells us what he knows about the medicinal properties of the local plants. Photo: Helene Michoux.

On the way there, during a one-and-a-half hour hike, he demonstrates his knowledge of herbs. Garambulla is
well-liked by the animals, it holds water, and when its fruit ripens, it’s delicious. The coyote melon ,
he tells us, fights diabetes and is good for kidney infections.

We are in the presence of a botanical encyclopedia on everything from cactus spines to trunks to leaves,
in this far off land; we are very close to the center of the earth.

The paintings are inside a cave. Where’s the cave? This is the most frequent question as we grow tired
from walking. It’s at the top of the mountain, in a crevasse we will reach after an hour and a half on
the trail. The beauty of the painting gallery is impressive, because of the size of the work and the
silence found here. At times only the wind is heard, with a few rocks tumbling down the hill, kicked
by some passing mountain goats. From high above there is a beautiful view of the far off mountains and
the nearby valley. It is a magical place.

These figures date back to approximately 4,500 years ago. Photo: Miguel Ángel Torres.

Crossing dry gulches, climbing over little hills, walking on flat red earth, mounds of rocks, now
jumping over huge rocks—this stretch can also be done by mule, horse, or burro, depending on what is

The place, in spite of so many interests created around ecotourism, is one of the good examples, like
many around the Gulf of California bordered by Sinaloa, Sonora, Nayarit, and the two Baja Californias.
In the South wildlife has managed to survive, owing to the state’s isolation from the continental mass,
the untamed territory, and its absence from governmental plans and private sector investments.

Just one paved highway goes from Los Cabos to Tijuana and Mexicali on the U.S. border. All along the
peninsula, this highway offers side trips to paradisiacal beaches, whale refuges, and, of course, the
San Francisco and Santa Martha mountain ranges.

The majestic landscapes of Baja California are at permanent risk of suffering a new colonization by
foreign investors who receive all kinds of incentives from the federal and state governments to invest
in real estate development and recreational areas for ecotourism. But it is poorly understood, to say
the least, whether this concept automatically carries with it a respect for natural resources, the creation
of quality jobs for the local people, a healthy competition with the locals, and a social consensus on
how to carry out these projects.

Although Don Jose, the guide in the Santa Martha range, at times makes only 180 pesos a month during
the tourist off season, he doesn’t complain. "It’s better this way, because too many people here
is not so good; they litter and scare the animals, the tranquility is lost." And this sentiment
is shared by the residents from the state capital, La Paz, to San Ignacio lagoon, the ancestral refuge
of the gray whale.

The Kuyimá Cooperative Earns its Certification: Learning from Experience

Every year there are more companies that offer services for ecotourism, also known as alternative
tourism. Kuyimá is one of them. It offers trips to the Santa Martha range for $50 per day per
person for groups of four or more visitors. With 16 years of experience, the firm Ecoturismo Kuyimá just
obtained certification as a sustainable enterprise from Green Globe 21, an international organization
supported by 27 industrial and governmental organizations that certified that Kuyimá carries out
its activities complying with the principles of sustainability in the social, environmental, and economic

On this point, José de Jesús Varela, better known as Josele, Kuyimá’s general
director, explains, "We undertook the certification process because we saw it as an instrument to
better our internal administrative operations and as a market incentive." He adds that it isn’t
that the company isn’t selling itself out, but rather that the requirements fell in line with what they
were already doing, so that it was rather natural that they would comply with them and they were the
first in the world to obtain the Green Globe 21 certification.

He explains that the certification helped them to improve: "We had a lot of information scattered
about and we had to organize it. We have our records of water consumption, use of detergents, both biodegradable
and not, paper consumption, people working here, how many are from here, what training we have received,
how much we assign directly for conservation, how many jobs we generate, what we do with organic waste,
with solids, how we handle it, what percentage we recycle, what we are missing."

Kuyimá was formed at San Ignacio Lagoon in 1990 in order to take advantage of whale watching,
an activity rather looked down upon by the local fishermen who kept alive the legend of the devil fish
in reference to the mating whales displaying extremely violent movements. In the past only Francisco
Mayoral González (Pachico) would take small groups from an American company in his small boats
to see the whales, according to Josele.

Pachico Mayoral: Empirical ecologist receiving groups that he takes to see the whales. Photo: Miguel Ángel Torres.

In 1994, even though Kuyimá would hire a few locals to take the tourists to observe the whales,
it was seen as an outside company that robbed work opportunities from the locals thanks to its international
contacts and contacts with the state government. Today it is criticized because it gives low quality
sporadic jobs to the local people. It is not considered local even though the younger generations recognize
its benefits for the area. When the company began operations in the whale sanctuary, the majority of
the fishermen did not know how to read or write, they lived by eating manta rays, and lodged the tourists
in their dwellings with no more conveniences than blankets and a roof. Now their children have gone to
universities and environmental education centers. They are better prepared for alternative tourism and
to work hand in hand with the residents of San Ignacio, a town some 50 kilometers from the lagoon. By
means of the internet they compete to attract visitors, something unthinkable a decade ago.

The Reserve’s Treasures Attract Visitors

The marine mammals that travel the two coasts and the lagoons of the Reserve find protection, refuge,
and food, as well as pristine conditions that make possible increased opportunities for the gray whale
to mate and give birth. The gray whale is under special protection. The most recent census reports populations
of at least 2,500 gray whales in the Reserve zone.

The coasts, the lagoons, and the marshes are very productive, and, as a consequence, the coasts have
one of the richest fishing areas in the world. The complex lagoon and marsh areas are conserved in excellent
condition. The annual migration of birds on the Pacific route find in the Reserve extensive protected
areas in which to rest and feed. Thousands of sea birds, shorebirds, and raptors feed in the rich shorelines,
in both winter and summer.

The Rebivi has a great variety of flora and fauna, both terrestrial and marine. In this region the
greatest number of plant groups on the whole peninsula is concentrated. Approximately 8.3% of the flora
are recognized as being endemic to the geographical region of the Vizcaíno desert. Here we find
species like the berrendo, which is in danger of extinction, and the feral sheep, which is considered

The reserve is situated in the arid region that belongs to the natural macro region known as the Sonoran
Desert. It is considered a transitional zone between the deserts of the southwestern United States and
the subtropical deserts of Mexico. The Rebivi is composed of three subdivisions of the Sonoran Desert:
the Viscaíno Desert which is the most representative since it makes up 95% of the Reserve’s area;
the Gulf Coast which is situated on a narrow strip on the eastern edge of mountainous region in the eastern
reserve; and the Magdalena Region, a small area to the southwest of the Reserve.

El Viscaíno Biosphere Reserve covers the municipality of Mulegé and its ejidos. Map: Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

The protected area includes a coastal plain composed of ridges, plateaus, and shallow gullies; it
has phenomenal geographical features like the Placeres mountains and the Santa Clara mountains, the marshes
that are found on the western coastal strip, as well as the various desert plains and the flood plains
in the zones near Ojo de Liebre and San Ignacio lagoons. There are great mountain masses on the eastern
peninsula and isolated hills like El Colorado, El Hermoso, and the Serrucho mountain range. The San Francisco
range includes a group of high points truncated and lengthened with steep cliffs. In this mountain mass
three volcanoes known as the Three Virgins stand out; the one known as Azufre (Sulfur) is still active
and one can appreciate in the immediate area fumaroles of water vapor and sulfur. The town of Santa Rosalia
is surrounded by a mountainous formation in which the hills El Calvario and Cerro Verde stand out.

In spite of its status as a protected area the Rebivi is not exempt from threats. In the mid-90s there
was an attempt led by Mitsubishi, ultimately dropped, to expand the saltpeter beds from Guerrero Negro
to San Ignacio lagoon. More recently, the area showed up in federal government plans to build at least
two nautical scales to receive large scale tourism on its land.

The reserve has extensive lands for birds to nest and feed, but it is also threatened. Photo: Helene Michoux.

It has been precisely the previously mentioned characteristics that have attracted both national and
international visitors interested in the conservation, use, and preservation of the natural resources,
as well as the application of plans and financial resources to mitigate the poverty of the region. This
has turned things around in such a way that the conglomerates of non-governmental organizations from
the United States and Mexico, governmental agencies, and organizations of fishermen and local tourism
providers have formed the Alianza de Conservación de la Laguna de San Ignacio (San Ignacio Lagoon
Conservation Alliance) whose history has only just begun, with much hope.

Large Scale Tourism vs. Low Impact Tourism

The chief current threat to the diversity and the richness of natural resources and the prevailing
way of life, so appreciated by natives and outsiders, is the Nautical Stair, a federal government project
to build 27 yacht stations on the coast of the Sea of Cortez in places that according to environmentalists
and service providers constitute natural refuges that are already used by sailors in the Gulf of California
without the need for building infrastructure.

The project has excited large national and international investors who have expressed their intention
to invest in the construction of marine steps along with commercial centers, large scale tourist hotels,
and luxurious residential centers for foreign retirees, all in the name of ecotourism and specifically
on the popular beaches, which are destined to disappear, just as is happening at a dizzying speed in
the southern part of the state from La Paz to Los Cabos.

Ecotourism is being confused with tourism involving dangerous sports, hunting, and fishing, that has
nothing to do with the intentions of low environmental impact, conservation of resources, and the participation
of the population in making decisions about projects, and even less in the distribution of the benefits
among the local population. The federal government is also taking advantage of the opportunity to capitalize
on the rising desire for tourism to enjoy remote places far from the great commercial centers with no
regard for the environmental impacts that it causes.

Baja Expeditions, a cutting edge company in ecotourism on the peninsula, was founded by Arizona native
Timothy Means, who is aware of what the region has, and what it has to lose. It combines the whale watching
business, kayaking, hiking, and the obligatory environmental education of its collaborators in order
to raise consciousness and challenge its clients: "Salsipuedes" (Leave if you can) is its motto
and its slogan, which can be read on the facade of the office where the excursionists plan trips and
receive environmental education. Many have been unable to leave. Tim signs up Italians, French people,
people from various Mexican states, and others. He is one more person in love with the peninsula, which
he defends from every proposed project of "progress in quotation marks," as he likes to say.
And like him, many others have come to these hidden places from many corners of the country and the world,
many people who fight against the transformation of the most popular beaches of Baja California Sur into
commercial centers and luxury residences. There are many who oppose unmeasured urban growth accompanied
by destruction of the landscape and growing poverty, and seek to avoid the expansion and, if possible,
correct the sorry living conditions of the people of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo, which, judging
by appearances, are perfect examples for opposition to development.

Alianza de Conservación de la Laguna de San Ignacio: A Pioneering Organization

As a result of the accumulation of experience, not to mention the consequences of the "other
globalization," a new organization of pioneering principles and structure called Alianza de Conservación
de la Laguna de San Ignacio (San Ignacio Lagoon Conservation Alliance) was conceived. Through specific
conservation and sustainable development goals it unites 43 families of the Luis Echeverría community,
on the San Ignacio Lagoon, and the non-governmental organizations Pronatura, Wildcoast, International
Community Foundation, and Natural Resources Defense Council.

Sunset on the San Ignacio Lagoon. “The community should decide” is the philosophy of the new Alliance. Photo: Miguel Ángel Torres.

This event has been transcendental for several reasons: the lagoon was declared by UNESCO to be a
World Heritage Site; it is a refuge not only for whales, but also for sea turtles, migratory birds, and
land animals like the puma and the berrendo. All of the territory is made up of ejidos, which means that
the lands are administered collectively, except for family use areas. The area has shifted to the new
lifestyle of conservation easement, which implies that for ages and ages, this will be its vocation
regardless of changes in administration that come with new generations of leaders.

The conservation easement agreement protects 45,000 hectares, 80% of the Luis Echeverría
ejido’s territory, and leaves that lagoon hopefully outside projects like the Nautical Stair and the
extensive exploitation of fishing and tourism, activities that will be subject to regulation and monitoring
by the non-governmental organization Pronatura. In order to support alternative productive projects,
the ejido will receive $25,000 dollars annually in perpetuity that will be deposited in a trust administered
jointly with the International Community Foundation as well as a one-time payment of $545,000 destined
for programs in individual areas. Raúl López Góngora, a commissioner of the Luis
Echeverría ejido, explains that while in other parts of the Peninsula they are selling property
that becomes a source of speculation or a place for real estate construction, they intend to conserve
the ejido and experiment with new ideas. Up to now, the residents make a living from fishing and whale
watching that lasts from October to March.

The Alianza hopes to extend the experiment to the rest of the ejidos around the lagoon. "The
concept is that the community itself should decide what it wants for the future and how it can best utilize
its resources," explains Miguel Angel Vargas, coordinator of Pronatura’s land conservation program.